A Rebirth of Interior Space

A Rebirth of Interior Space; Designers Wanted


Scott M. A. Marchio, LEED AP ID+C

Associate Principal and Director of Sustainability

The AZTEC Corporation

Today I missed lunch. I was caught up in a pile of work and when I finally looked at the clock it was 3:00 PM. I simply carried on. I was equally surprised when I came out of my office what seemed to be a short while later, to find everyone had vacated for the day: It was 7:30. We spend a tremendous amount of our day in a static environment designed to maintain peak, ideal conditions for multi-functional work environments, disconnected from what’s going on outside. The lighting is consistent and appropriate for the work we do; the materials that surround us often have nondescript, neutral-colored surfaces intended to minimize disruption and soothe (or at least avoid offense). This is all about to change.

In recent years lighting manufacturers have been marketing a tunable white light that can be adjusted from a rather warm yellow/white light (something you might find in a residential space) to a cooler blue/white light (something you might find in a hospital or school). The ability to flexibly tune the light allows the user to render their space differently. Speculation might point to the retail industry where change of materials occurs often, but the cost was too high for the product to be effective. We all know that natural light in the built environment improves health and performance. In fact, our body needs sunlight; 30 minutes a day at minimum, 120 minutes is ideal. “After 15 years of putting in my dues at the office, I finally got moved out of the interior cubicle farm and now I sit next to a window which gives me plenty of light, right?” Wrong.

Studies show that windows block 100% of the ultraviolet (UV) light our bodies crave. You might think, “Wait a minute. Isn’t ultraviolet light bad for us? That’s why I bought those hundred-dollar shades.”

There are three types of UV light: UVA, UVB, and UVC. “A” and “B” are good for our bodies; “C” is not: It burns our skin. But, when we set out to block UVC, we end up blocking UVA and UVB, too, and that’s not good. Or is it? As it so happens, 98% of the light we need from the sun enters through our eyes, while only 2% enters our body through the skin and produces vitamin D. So you may want to think twice before your next trip to Sunglass Hut.

“Well, light is light and I’ve been sitting under twelve fluorescent tubes all day for years. That’s got to help, right?” Not likely. Neither incandescent nor fluorescent light provide any benefit which might even remotely resemble the impact of the sun. If you’re lucky enough to have “full-spectrum” lighting in the office and you sit under it for six hours a day, you may be matching an equivalent of 30 minutes of natural light, meaning you might just be getting by on those administrative in-office work days. But can’t we do better?

As research progressed, a link was made, more specifically connecting the color of full-spectrum light to those health benefits we get from the sun. The link is quite simple and profound: It’s “time.” The color of natural light progresses over time, and now we can mimic natural light in our electric LED lights by using controls. Possibilities opened across the board and the lighting industry salivated. It was found that tunable white light could be connected to a time clock or daylight sensor, and controls could be designed to mimic daylight that changed from blue tones to red tones over the course of the day; “dynamic” white light was born. The healthcare industry rolled out the red carpet to connect patients to the outdoors, to nature, to realign circadian rhythm. Speculation spread to other areas of health; mood, recovery, concentration, relaxation…the opportunities could be endless, but also significantly important. As prices come down on this technology, this will soon be the norm everywhere. The lights in my office will shift slightly as the day goes by subconsciously connecting my body and mind to the time of day. I will never again be surprised by an empty office or completely miss my lunch break… but that’s only the beginning.

The idea is that lighting is changing: Everyone’s going to be engaged by healthier spaces, we’ll all be happier and sleeping better. But what are the other implications of dynamic white lighting?

Let’s start with a simple realization: Nothing has inherent color. Your sweater is not red, the carpet is not green, the house is not blue; color is a perception of the eye caused by a combination of reflected and absorbed light. Variables in chemical composition cause certain wavelengths of visible light to be absorbed by a material and others to be reflected. The result is a color perceived by our eyes. If you change the type of light, the temperature of light, or the rendering capacity of light you can change the perceived color of an object.

As architects and interior designers, we select the aesthetics of a space to be as dynamic as possible while using static materials. We choose our carpets, our paint, our furniture, our fabric and tile, etc., all by looking at samples under lighting conditions similar to those in the intended space in order to ensure the desired look. Material manufacturers do the same, looking at their products under a spectrophotometer when determining perceived color before marketing their new color as “chartreuse.” We all know that materials look different under incandescent light versus fluorescent light versus LED versus natural light. We have all purchased that new shirt because it caught our eye on the mannequin but it never seems to look good in the closet. What about that time we came to work wearing one black sock and one blue sock? Lighting creates subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) changes in the way we perceive color.

If the lighting in a space is no longer static, but dynamic, all the finishes in a space could potentially change over the course of the day. As to how much they change, that’s a product of conversation and research.

Let’s go back to the sock analogy: If my socks both look black under incandescent light in my closet, but, when I get outside, one looks black and the other looks blue, I’m going to be embarrassed by the time I arrive at my 9:00 am meeting. But when I get there, what type of light will I be under? Will my client be able to tell if one sock is blue and the other is black? Or will the socks appear to match again? Or will there be a third color under those conditions?

As a designer, I may not care if the carpet I propose is slightly bluer or blacker under different light but I would care if my accent carpet appears blue and my field carpet appears black. AND I would want to know IF and HOW SIGNIFICANT that shift was going to be in order to properly prepare for those conditions. Maybe I want to play with color; maybe I can’t.

It seems to me we have two issues to contend with. Both involve a significant industry and market shift. One also involves potential liability.

If I am designing a restaurant, and that restaurant caters to a formal, conservative, business-class lunch crowd, I would propose a certain aesthetic. But if that same restaurant caters to a completely different dinner crowd, one that is more lively and perhaps hosts live entertainment with dancing, I might propose a completely different aesthetic. I can easily create those conditions with lighting, but shouldn’t the rest of my space change as well? Wouldn’t it be awe-inspiring, and appropriate if the stuffed shirt who had lunch there that afternoon, came back with his wife for dinner and didn’t recognize the place? We already know that different lighting conditions can change humans’ perceived color of materials, so why not harness that ability to create dynamic spaces; spaces where the tan carpet turns green and the green walls turn tan, maintaining the color pallet but inverting the design; spaces where the pattern in the carpet inverts, so the accent becomes the field and vice versa. Think of the possibilities in art where an image takes on a completely different look after staring at it awhile. What if you could introduce a completely new space by simply adjusting the lighting?

On the flip side, if I’m designing an assisted-living facility, visual acuity is paramount. Aging eyes require significantly more light and significantly more contrast to function normally. To give you a comparable example, studies show that a 40-year old requires 3 times more light than a 10-year old to tackle the same task. The degradation of eye sight deteriorates exponentially from there; a 60-year old requires 15 times the light; an 80-year old requires 150 times the light. If either adequate light or adequate contrast is lacking, there is greater probability that elderly persons will reduce their own exposure to their daily routine out of fear. They will venture out less often because of reduced visual confidence. But by staying inside and becoming more closed off, they will disassociate themselves from the outdoors, losing connection to natural spaces, and becoming at odds with their circadian rhythm. Or worse: They venture out and fall. As a designer, it is my job to create strong contrast between the solid floor color and the solid wall color; a strong contrast around the door frames and a greater intensity of light to maintain normal behavior for aging eyes and bodies. If, over the course of the day, the lighting were to change in order to reinforce occupants’ connection with the time of day, I would need to ensure there was no shift in color or contrast within those spaces. Under these circumstances, I am responsible for the design. If my design causes the reverse effect, or creates liability through slip-and-fall lawsuits, I’m going to find myself in a bad situation real fast.

I think most would agree, this is a pretty big game changer. So, to prepare, the next step seems pretty straightforward: Contact material manufacturers and determine variables that affect perceived color. But, in reaching out to various manufacturers over the last year, I have become somewhat concerned that chemical engineers, research-and-development teams, textile designers, carpet-fiber manufacturers, pigment specialists, and all sorts of others involved with the color process seem to know very little about the science of how their products absorb or reflect light. They are unable to identify variables that control metamerism (or perceived color shift) within their products under different lighting parameters and I fear we are all in for a very rude awakening when the demand materializes.

This lighting technology is here NOW, and while it will benefit the people in the spaces we design, we’re not ready for the effect it will have on the rest of our environment. I predict there will be a lot of angry designers who are embarrassed by their mismatched spaces and, quite possibly, some of them may wind up walking the line between responsibility and liability. I predict manufacturers will fear for their own sustainability and scramble to find ways of stabilizing (or perhaps exploiting) the perceived metameric shift within their products. I predict an epic explosion of possibilities for the design community, an unprecedented financial reinvestment in research and development, a scavenging of small and inexpensive product lines by large manufacturers. And from the ashes of this transformation, I believe we will witness the emergence of glorious and incredible dynamic materials which will adorn every interior environment. And when it finally comes to be, perhaps we can all discuss it over lunch. I know I won’t be late, but now I’m not sure what to wear.